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- Watch closely when your car burns oil (6/29/07)
When a car won't start on its own
Dear Tom and Ray: I am a student in Boston with a car that is originally from Texas. I have a 1996 Chevrolet G Van that has more than 150,000 miles on it. The car had been working really well until last fall. This was its first real winter. Basically, I have to jump-start my car every time I want to turn it on. It starts very easily and reliably with a jump. So I bought one of those portable jump-start boxes, because I got tired of praying that someone would be in the parking lot whenever I needed to go anywhere. I am hoping that you might have an idea of what is going on with my car and what I can do to fix it.
Tom: You must have made a lot of new friends, Hannah. That's a great way to meet people when you're new to a city -- drive a car that never starts.
Ray: Two things come to mind, Hannah. The first is very simple to fix. I think you might have a dead cell in your battery.
Tom: A car battery is made up of six cells -- kind of like the unit where my brother did time after the IRS caught up with him.
Ray: If one cell in your battery is dead, the battery might only be producing 10 volts instead of 12. That's enough to work the lights, the radio and the 40,000-watt stereo system. But the starter motor needs a full 12 volts, or it just won't move. When you turn the key, you might hear the starter lurch, or you'll hear a clicking sound, or nothing at all.
Tom: The solution to that is a new battery. That'll cost you 75 bucks. Just flag down one of the guys in your parking lot and say: "Excuse me, my car won't start. Would you mind putting in this new battery for me?" Then go hide behind a building in case he crosses the cables and sets your car on fire.
Ray: Or just go to a gas station, and have them do it, Hannah. Because they can check for the other possibility: a current drain. It could be something like a light in the glove box that's staying on all night.
Tom: Or a fellow student running his laptop all night from your cigarette lighter so he can sell term papers.
Ray: It's very easy for your neighborhood mechanic to test your battery and your charging system, and to check for a current drain. That shouldn't cost very much. But I'd bet on the battery. Good luck, Hannah.